Strange new world
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Strange new world

First person

Rabbi Lee Paskind, speaking about his synagogue’s commitment to help refugees, notes that watching young children adapt so easily to a new culture is both heartening and enjoyable. As a member of the CBS Refugee Support Committee, I enthusiastically agree.

But my joy is tempered somewhat when I see the older members of the family struggling to adjust to their new reality: different climate (What is snow, and what do we wear on our feet when it is snowing?), strange language, new customs, new everything. And yet, that is precisely what our grandparents and great-grandparents experienced when they came here from eastern Europe, knowing they would not — could not — return to their homes.

I remember a book, “Call it Sleep,” detailing the plight of families where parents spoke only Yiddish and young women worked in sweatshops, subject to the abuse of the owners. For the first time, picturing the wonderful young women I now visit weekly, I can start to understand the plight of my own — your own — family, coming here with only a dream and hopes for a better future. They may sorely miss the families they left behind, even worry for their safety, but they have done what they had to do.

And once they were here, our families also did what they had to do, whether sharpening knives, selling dry goods from a pushcart, or doing piecework in a dimly lit kitchen for pennies. They did it for their families — and today, many of those families are thriving.

Now teaching a mother and her eldest daughter to speak English, when they were not even literate in their native language — the girls were not permitted to go to school, for safety reasons — I delight in their willingness to form their mouths into new shapes and say words that may sound terribly strange to them. “My dress is purple.” “It is not snowing outside.” But when they go out of their apartment and hear “real” idiomatic English, spoken quickly, will they understand? Eventually, they will. But not now. Not yet.

As head of his family, the father must adjust to many things as well: not being the family breadwinner, having to rely on others for help, not being allowed to drive until he passes a test in another language — all the while feeling responsible for the well-being of his family and knowing that he has so much to offer his new country.

As frequent visitors to their home, we CBS members are doing our best to help “our” family meet these challenges and, I hope, doing it well. But I can’t help thinking that something is missing. When we read about our grandparents, we read about crowded tenements, teeming with people in the same situation. For reasons of comfort and sanitation, that was not necessarily good. But it did create community. And even if the existing western European Jewish community did not necessarily embrace their eastern European brothers and sisters as equals, they nevertheless provided some resources.

Now? With fewer refugees being permitted into the country, and new immigrants often feeling more isolated than our own grandparents did, that peer support is harder to find. Some fellow volunteers witnessed a joyful scene in a clinic when members of “our” family stumbled upon a family from their own country. Joy, fellowship, laughter — something we had not yet seen.

I hope that we will once again become a welcoming nation and that this family, and others, will get the support, fellowship, and warm embrace that will so enhance their lives.

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